Thursday, July 7, 2016

Blood, Death and Blackness

Blood, Death and Blackness
I see all around me
Gory phantasms that can't be real
Dead eyes, open mouths
Wounded bodies in pain

Black children crying
as Black mother's read from scripts
written by a history of violence
against Black Women
Through the murder of their children

Graves dug open
to receive Black bodies whose
flesh was ripped open for
no apparent reason other than
it was Black flesh

Blackness so black that all
they see is black but they
don't see the red that we see
when we see the blood
another Dead Black person

They shoot, we die
They investigate, we cry
We burn and they turn
our pain against us as
They live, we don't

Friday, March 25, 2016

The fear of everything

When I was a small child, probably 7 or 8 or so I would love to go to Zayre's Department store with my mother. Zayre's was a generic low end retailer that sold cheap goods like depictions of White Jesus in plastic gold frames along side bags of tube socks and polyester moo moos that every grandmother in North Carolina wore in the 70s. While my mother would do her shopping she would let me hang out in the toy aisle. All. By. Myself. That's right. An 8 year old kid, unattended, in a store, with his mother wandering on the other side leisurely picking up items she didn't need. I never left the toy aisle--well I did once and got lost in the tire department (to this day the smell of rubber brings about an uncontrolled panic) but a nice employee used the PA system to call my mother, which made me feel special to the point every time thereafter, I would ask the lady to call my name so I could hear it over the loud speakers. What? I like attention. But my mother would always come back and find me. Safe and content.

The world of the 70s was really dangerous for children. We were allowed to leave home, on our bikes, and pedal to the candy store down the street. We were left unsupervised to play with cousins and neighbors, to create our own island in the Pacific, were we hunted wild boar and jumped off the garage with towels tired around our necks. We had toys that could kill us. I had a Tonka Toy jeep that was made of real metal. I had broken the roof off and the four remaining spikes were razor sharp. I could've put out an eye had I tripped running with that thing. We had sheets that would burn us alive; we had cribs made with lead paint. We constantly inhaled gasoline fumes that were toxic. We had parents and siblings who would do us bodily harm while neighbors turned a blind eye. We didn't have car seats (hell we didn't even use seat belts). We didn't have teachers or student resource officers watching for signs of abuse, we didn't have Nancy Grace. There were real live perverts in white vans. There were real men dressed like clowns. It was a scary time. I write this without nostalgia. WIthout sentimentality. That was just the world of my childhood. 

We live in a very different world today. For the last forty years we have been told, first by politicians, then by nightly news anchors, followed by anecdotes at church and the barbershop and finally by social media that our world is too dangerous for children to be left alone in it. It doesn't matter that child abductions are at historic lows. It doesn't matter that we have a child care system overzealously removing children from their parents. The perception--which is reality to most--is that our children need protection from evil. All. The. Time. If you let your child out of your sight for just a split second you are a bad parent. If you let your child walk to the store by himself you may be arrested for child neglect. If a school official sees a bruised arm you are investigated for abuse. Children can't play with children they don't know. Our children's lives have become regimented. A quotidian of scheduled play dates and soccer practice. Parents are constantly living in fear. Fear that something bad will happen to them or their children. This fear is irrational of course.

So it doesn't surprise me that when Charlotte passed an ordinance that would allowed transgendered individuals to use the restroom of their chosen gender that people would frenzy before or without any thought over it. As if come April 1, 2016, when the ordinance would become law, that men dressed in cheap wigs and bad pumps would be drooling at every Ladies Room entrance at the mall. These fears were always telescoped toward women and little girls as if Patriarchy was the calvary riding in to save them from a gorilla on the Rue Morgue. It didn't matter than 8 other cities in North Carolina had similar laws in place and they had been enacted without incident. It didn't matter that many other cities and states in the country had similar laws in place and there had been no indications that child molestation or rape in public bathrooms had skyrocketed. It didn't matter that child abduction or "stranger danger" was at an all time low. It didn't matter that your child is more likely to be sexually abused by one of your own family members or a person that he or she knows and NOT by a unknown person in a public place. Actually statistics have proven that public facilities like restrooms are far more dangerous for transgendered people than the people who are using the facility with them. So the state of North Carolina acted in fear and created a wide-ranging law that neither protects women and children nor the special groups it claims it does. Indeed it makes it more dangerous for those same groups by making it harder for People of Color and members of the LGBT community to sue for discrimination.

I think the saddest thing is that we have acquiesced to fear in this country. So much so that we can no longer see each other as human beings. So much so that we can't even be rational. We hear transgender-slash-bathroom and we are ready to kick somebody's ass if they touch my child when the likelihood of that happening is zero. We have given into fear for our jobs so we want to kick Mexicans out; fearful of our religion so we want to kick gays out; fearful of our freedom that we want to kick Muslims out; fearful of our own prejudices that we want to kick Black Lives Matter protesters out. So fearful for our families that the thought of having to share a bathroom with a man or women (you probably wouldn't even recognize as being their original sex anymore) so interminably frightening we want them out too. What this does is create tribalism. The more I am fearful of your tribe, the less empathetic I am to your tribe's plight. So we sit back in fear and watch the rights of our fellow Americans being eroded. What we don't realize is that the same fear is eroding us too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Mask of the Yellow Hair

With the Iowa caucuses just a few days away we are in full-fledged presidential election season. I've been noticing a lot of my Facebook friends posting memes that compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler and while I think most of them are funny here's the problem I have with these images:

By comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler we're creating the mistaken notion that evil can't reside in the heart of the United States. That somehow fascism or authoritarianism is an alien ideology infecting a country that advertises full throated exceptionalism and broadcasts an image of bootstrapping materialism to the rest of the world. These images prove that only a foreigner like Adolf Hitler can rise to power in a foreign country like Germany. That Trump's very ideals are foreign. But Donald Trump is no aberration. Donald Trump and his blowhard attitude with his reductive views of immigrants and religion are as American as baseball and apple pie.

We often hear those who support and attend Donald Trump's rallies say that their favorite candidate is only speaking what others won't say. That he is speaking his mind. They are actually telling the truth. Many politicians both left and more so on the right use coded language to signal to voters what they are really saying. So instead of Republicans talking about border security, Donald Trump comes right out and says he thinks Mexicans are rapists and criminals and we should build a fence to keep them out. Instead of using terms like urban crime or entitlement programs, Donald Trump tweets that he thinks African Americans are lazy and violent. Where once national security and terrorism were buzzwords, he openly talks about spying on mosques and banning Muslims from entering the United States. After he says these outrageous things his popularity sores and cable news pundits become apopletic at what they consider an abomination; an afront to American ideals. That Trump is ultimately a cipher who has tricked the masses with his Pied Piper words or that he's touched on the zeitgest of an uneducated working class anger.

The cable pundits are wrong. Racism and xenophobia has existed in the United States much longer than this notion of diversity and equality. Donald Trump is no aberration. He's no fluke. What was a fluke was a biracial man who considers himself African American being elected President of the United States. Twice. That was a fluke. A rich old white man who spouts racist, xenophobic, anti-muslim, authoritarian, mysogonistic, pro capitalistic rhetoric is an every day occurance somewhere in America. So maybe the face underneath the Donald Trump mask is not Hitler. Maybe the face underneath the mask of America is Donald Trump and the millions who agree with him.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe freedom of the press

So CNN suspends a reporter for correctly tweeting out that by passing a bill that would refuse to allow Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the country without more extensive vetting (as if that isn't already being done) that the Statue of Liberty would hang her head in shame. Of course after the tweet came the cries of liberal media bias from the right bouncing against cries from the left about CNN's spotty track record when it comes to truth in reporting. This claim of one-sidedness in the media isn't new. The Republican party has turned the notion of liberal bias into a powerful messaging apparatus that ensures the masses of right-leaning voters will only trust rightwing sources. So propaganda becomes the news. The problem with this model is that it doesn't speak to the real truth. That there is no liberal or conservative bias in the news. There's only an American bias.

Most Americans go through life with the sublime unawareness of our country's actions abroad. We live in a sugarcoated world of football and Jerry Springer; where politicians make proclamations that we are the greatest country on earth. That we are the only country with a truly free democracy and our press is the gold standard of reporting. The reality is much different. Or at least the perception of it by many people across the world is. America is bold. We like big things. Big houses, big roads to drive our big cars. We like swagger and grandiloquence. We eat red meat and freedom fries. We shoot guns. We wave our flags and religion (only Christianity and mostly the Protestant ones) and never once do we think that maybe we are the Sword of Domocles with a tenuous string of petulance holding that sword in place. We hate details in America. As long as it said in brash tones it doesn't matter how off-kilter it is.

Most of us get our news from cable, or Facebook or Smoke down at the barbershop or Randy at the parts store. Mrs. Falls at the bake sale said "the blacks" were taking over her neighborhood. Uncle Roch (short for Rochester) said he'd never met a Jew or a Aye-Rab that he could trust. These statements may sound outlandish to read but they are cornerstones of family gatherings and small talk after church. And our news media does nothing to disabuse us of our prejudices. Against one another or against the world at large.

We're taught in school that slavery began sometime hundreds of years ago. Then there was the Civil War (that had nothing to do with slavery though it did end it) and then there was Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech followed by the election of Barack Obama. But what we are not taught was that connective tissue between those milestone events. We are not taught about generational chattel slavery that lasted 246 years. We're not taught that Black women were bred like cattle having dozens of babies before their bodies died. We're not taught about how brutal American apartheid was or how--even after serving their country hundreds of Black soldiers were lynched and killed, mainly in the South and Mid-West, after WWII. We're not taught about the persecution of the Black Power movement of the 1970s. We just skip along from point-to-point not worrying about the fine print. And the media has become increasing culpable in keeping us ignorant.

If you ask the average American what is ISIS they will correctly reply its a terrorist organization. When you ask them how they came to be the answers becomes murkier. Its because we don't see those dots, hidden behind the hubris and debris of political discourse. We see 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and the Rise of ISIS--always reported with a fanfare of somber music evoking heroes and villains as if in a movie. The news has become so theatrical. It's like we're living in an Orwellian dystopia where we're told "TODAY WE FIGHT THE TALIBAN"--without irony and with the full knowledge that most Americans don't know we helped the Taliban come to power in the first place. So when I hear many conservatives on Facebook parrot what Dr. Ben Carson or Donald Trump is saying about Muslim databases and comparing refugees to rabid dogs; I know that many of them are shocked and surprised because the media did nothing to expand our worldview nor did we do anything to seek out that information. We have been spoon feed far too long. We invaded Iraq under false pretenses in 2003 which triggered a series of events that cost millions of people all over that region everything they held dear; these events led to a refugee crisis which in turn lead millions to flee their homeland. Some of them inexorably ended up on our doorstep. But because we have been watching Duck Dynasty and Love and Hip Hop their arrival comes as a complete surprise. So I'm not amazed that we want to turn them away. Why? Because we have been living a dream for so long. An addict's dream where we are high on exceptionalism and braggadocio. We are fully invested in staying asleep. The truth would be too powerful or painful.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bert Williams: America's first Black superstar in blackface

Bert Williams 1874-1922

"I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient -- in America."

Bert Willaims was born Egbert Austin Williams in Nassau, Bahamas before his family moved to New York and then California. Forced to abandon his college study of civil engineering at Stanford University to earn a living, he turned his self-taught musical skills and gift for comic mimicry into a lifelong career. Williams was described by film comedian W. C. Fields (quoted by Ann Charters in Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams ) as "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew."

Bert Williams got his start on the musical hall stage in 1892, when he began working at the San Francisco Museum, where someone was needed to sing in front of the curtain while the sets were being changed backstage. In 1893 he joined Martin and Selig's Mastodon Minstrel Show. It was soon thereafter that he began his partnership with George W. Walker, and billing themselves as "Two Real Coons" they went on to become one of the most successful comedy teams of their era. By 1903 their partnership elevated from the vaudeville circuit to Broadway, where their act evolved to full-scale musical comedy. They produced, wrote and starred in In Dahomey (1902), the first Black musical comedy to open on Broadway.
After Walker's death in 1909 from syphilis, Williams joined the shows of Florenz Ziegfeld and starred in the Follies from 1910 to 1919. He created the persona of the "Jonah Man" the unluckiest man in the world, resigned to his fate with rueful self-pity that transcended his color. Williams' trademark character was an expansion of the traditional and simplistic darky role to create a fuller fleshed-out character. Bert introduced a new aspect to the classic dimwit, adding a dimension that audiences applauded not only for its humor but also for its illustration of his talents as an actor. Jonah Man was a dumb coon in appearance only. The man underneath was both dubious and contemplative.

As a single act, Bert Williams was the first black to become a star comedian on Broadway. Shortly after his opening on Broadway, Theatre Magazine called Bert Williams "a vastly funnier man than any white comedian now on the American stage." He was the first Black featured in a Broadway revue and was the first Black actor to join Actor's Equity. In London he played a command performance before King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace.

Through mime, Bert Williams displayed an emotional range that transcended the boisterous performance style of minstrels or the broad physical comedy of vaudeville. Although the performance was comedic, beginning and ending in laughter, it was also dramatic, touching upon his emotional depth. Although Bert played the familiar Jim Crow character, his performance enabled him to step a bit out of the heavy shadow that the stereotype cast.

Williams became the first Black comedian to ever appear in the cinema, debuting on screen in 1914, in Darktown Jubilee. A screening of the independent black film in Brooklyn produced boos, cat-calls, and a near race riot from a white audience who rejected the all-black film. Darktown Jubilee was quickly taken out of circulation by the distributor, Biograph.

In 1916, he produced, directed and starred in A Natural Born Gambler. The film features his most famous pantomime routine, that of a poker player who goes through all the motions of dealing, placing bets and ultimately...losing. His facial expressions and gestures were subtle, in contrast to the standards of the day, and yet more expressive. He was able to convey a wide array of emotions as his character rode the emotional highs and lows of a single hand.

Also in 1916, Bert produced, directed and starred in Fish, about a boy who spends hours digging for worms and wants to spend his afternoon fishing, but when he returns home for his pole he finds chores waiting. He sneaks out on the chores and goes fishing anyway. After he catches a big fish he tries to sell it to one of his neighbors, but the neighbor runs him off. The boy's family catches up with him and drags him back to his chores. At 42, Bert's attempt to portray a "boy" was not well received. Bert was frustrated with the limitations of primitive cinema and Fish was his last film.
Bert Williams continued to play the vaudeville circuit and record songs from his shows for the fledgling recording industry. His phonograph records were more numerous than his films and provided a more extensive view of his talents and abilities. Considered by some to be one of the finest recording stars of the time, he cut seventeen titles during his four-year contract with Columbia Records. While most of his recordings are said to have been “simple parodies of conventional stage humor of the period,” others were more serious songs which showcased his considerable talent.

Bert's most famous vaudeville character was Mr. Nobody, whose sad song would later be sung by everyone from Nina Simone to Johnny Cash.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Cut your grass and the rest will follow!

I recently saw this post on facebook from a Black man:

"Rant about black folks who want everything but refuse to do the basics for themselves: Earlier this week I commented on a local black radio discussion regarding attracting investment to central city prescription was to have residents demonstrate that they care about their neighborhood by cleaning up trash, plant grass if your lawn is bare, become proactive against elements that create opportunity for crime (i.e., monitor children who are just hanging out causing disruption, report crime to the police, turn on porch lights at night, etc)...people will invest in attractive neighborhoods, no business wants to locate to an area where folks don't show care...few want to invest in a business where residents aren't prone to calling police if there are break ins and thefts...the talk host poo pooed my solution to which I said then just let their neighborhood remain an armpit..I can't help black folks that refuse to help themselves...I certainly don't want those kind of black folks living around me"

As I read his post I just kept hearing EnVogue singing in my mind "Cut yo' grass! And the rest will follow!" It's hilarious to think that we are still talking about how Black people need to behave in order to get the same benefits that white people do, no matter how they act. White folk can ack'a fool but no one will ever tell them writ large to clean their yards, take down those Confederate flags, or discipline their bad kids because inherent in these biases, Black people are still seen as being in need of being controlled. Wether that control is internal or external doesn't matter. Just to keep the driven, wanton, lustful, Black masses, with their jiggly, big-bootied, neck swiveling, angry Sharkeshas from slapping a ho (unless its on reality TV); to the cherry lip-glossed Sapphires ensconced like queens on the throne on welfare; to the BBC mandigos, slangin' molly along with rap lyrics named Rasha'ad who got five baby mammas they don't take care of; and who cares if they don't 'cause they all going to prison were they belong anyway. America loves the affectation of Blackness until they have to wear the label itself then every mutha fucka wants a refund.

So here's what I said to him:

Many people (both Black and white) think the problem in poor Black, inner city areas is strewn garbage on the street and ill-behaved children. You like to blame disinvestment on people who don't clean their lawns or fit the way you think a "good Black person" should be. So why don't you use that same fervor to push business owners to build factories in cities anymore. For years, in the north especially, manufacturing jobs help lift many Black people out of poverty. Where are those jobs now? They have been sent oversees. Yet I don't see many conservatives demanding those jobs to come back. What I hear is a lot about deregulations and trickle-down economics. Unions used to help lift Black workers out of poverty. Black people were the driving force for unionization as a matter of fact. Yet union membership is actually lower now that it was BEFORE the FLSA was made into law 80 years ago. Wisconsin governor and presidential candidate, Scott Walker, prides himself on destroying unions. In the 1970s a man with a only a high school diploma could make a good living by working as a skilled-laborer on an assembly line, with good healthcare and benefits; now a man with just a high school diploma can only get a job working part-time at Micky Dees or Target for minimum wage and no benefits. If you're a single mom working 2 jobs (and remember even a woman receiving TANF has to work PT) the last thing you are going to think about is cutting the grass.

If you want the neighborhood to change you need to talk to the banks. Have them offer loans in these "trashy" neighborhoods to bring back a good housing base. Often times in these areas you describe as bad, a homeowner has to pay HIGHER interest rates than in a suburban community. So what this does is bring in slumlords who buy cheap housing for cash then rent them out. HOw about giving incentives to Black working families to move back into these areas. Many of these older neighborhoods had families at one time, but with Black flight, high interest loans, red-lining and the sheer cost of being poor many of these places have now been populated with low-income renters.

If you want these neighborhoods to change get rid of "broken windows" policing. Often we think of Black inner city neighborhoods as crime ridden when many aren't. When I lived in The Bronx, my zip code had a much lower crime rate that some of the city's more affluent neighborhoods, yet all my white friends (who had been mugged steps from their apartments) kept asking me why I lived in such an unsafe area. Stop-&-Frisk is another example of over-policing. Each year in New York City over 500,000 Black and Latino young men were stopped by cops for no reason. The overwhelming majority of them were found to have no warrants, guns, drugs, etc. If we had any other program with a 97% failure rate it would have been stopped immediately, yet this continued for over a decade because there was a perception that Black youth commit crimes all the time. Also over policing leads to the removal of millions of Black men from their communities. Right now if you are poor, white and use drugs and live in a rural trailer park you are 4 times less likely to be arrested for drug possession than a poor Black kid living in the inner city. Right now we have hundreds of thousands of Black men sitting in prison whose only crime was having a small amount of weed/ pot or crack on their person. Those men could be out in the community working, building homes, keeping up their lawns.

If you want the neighborhood to change give parents a reason to relocate to the area. Change the policy on schools (use vouchers, charters, fix the broken public schools, anything and everything to help get those kids on track). Telling somebody to plant flowers or sweep their sidewalk doesn't prevent their local schools from failing. Get rid of the school-to-prison pipeline. In a recent study it was found that in Wake Country, NC a Black elementary (yes grade-school) student was 11 times more likely to be arrested for an in-school infraction than their white counterparts. People are far less likely to go to college if they went to a school system that failed them from 1st through 12th grade. Failing schools produce failing adults.

If you want the neighborhood to change then force the city to put funds back into these places. We have starved our cities to death with tax cut after tax cut after tax cut that only end up benefiting the riches people in the community. We have been tricked by the GOP into thinking our tax cut, which may buy you a couple pairs of Jordans and a few extra pizza runs will help you. What these tax cuts do is keep more money in the pockets of the rich--who don't spend it, they just hoard it--while defunding much needed public services like buses, light-pole maintenance and the public defenders office.

So let's repeat: the prescription to bettering a neighborhood is not cutting grass or disciplining children, its creating good jobs that pay people well, keep them healthy, give them low interest loans and other incentives to buy in the neighborhood while providing their children a solid educational foundation at the same time keeping up the infrastructure. It may sound like a lot but we see this formula replicated all across America, in predominately white suburbs. We know it works there so let's apply it to inner city neighborhoods as well. But telling poor Black people that its their fault businesses won't employ them or banks won't give them money simply because they have raggedy houses with burned lawns or bad-assed loud children is not only condescending its a lie.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The season of the witch

 Her friend Chrysanthemum Applewhite, with her sultry lips and pale skin, had finally let her hair grow out. Solstice thought it looked pretty down but the green changeable taffeta evening gown the woman wore—with the double-straps and basket weave bodice was just too drab and austere for her tastes. Solstice wanted something daring. Something unforgettable. So she chose to have her personal seamstress run up the same dress Bette Davis wore earlier that year to the Oscars, altered to fit her own style of course. Bette’s dress was dark but Solstice wanted something more soulful. Hers was made of gold metallic tulle with an attention-grabbing collar of peacock feathers that ringed her face with a flourish. Her chocker of faceted chrysoprase was dramatic but it seemed subdued compared to the massive yellow sapphire cocktail ring she wore on her right hand. The same hand that held the glass of champagne she had just spilled on the man now holding her.

     Solstice was tallish for a woman with a light complexion. “Café con leche.” is what her Dominican suitor kept calling her. More Ethel Waters than Lena Horne with bright red hair that she hated and often described as—“an angry nappy bush”—was constantly at odds with a comb. She reigned over her New Year’s Eve party with the confidence of a tiger over its domain. An ecru impresario who plied her guests with expensive gin, hot jazz and an expansive showmanship snatched directly from Josephine Baker’s groundbreaking performance in “Un Vent de Follie” of the Folies Bergère. She saw the show that was eventually made into a movie starring Maurice Chevalier, Merle Oberon and Ann Sothern. She had met them all at its 1935 Paris premiere with Shaka Tiberius—oh how she missed his touch with those broad militaristic shoulders and generously large hands. That dark mahogany skin and his lush mouth that curled into a devilishly succulent smile when he felt horny or mischievous. Antonin Crissuki put on quite a show himself that night for Maurice and the girls at his notorious after café club Chambre du Sang, but she digressed, Latin men and champagne had that affect on her. The revelry seemed to come to a stop as if a red light was turned on; and she, just for a moment, savored her own greatness. The two-and-a-half thousand square foot ballroom sat on the top most floor of her doublewide Convent Avenue brownstone in Harlem. When you went to a “Solstice Macaffey Affair”—always in quotes, always italicized—you were guaranteed to have a wonderful time. A sitting Queen of Witches would have it no other way.